Connecting with Welcoming Experts in Puerto Rico

Group planning brunch with Professor Connolly, Professor Ortiz Garcia, UPR student Ibrahim Rodriguez and UB Student Attorneys Dave Yovanoff and Eamon Riley.

Puerto Rico was a welcoming place. Despite some concerns among those of us serving as Student Attorneys in the University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic before coming, seldom did we feel uncomfortable or unwanted. After explaining our presence to experts on the islands, the most common response was to help us achieve our goal, whether by pointing us to the next house in need of supplies, or by explaining an obscure legal issue. These individual interactions coalesced to paint a broader picture of Puerto Rico, and helped me to identify areas of potential, and concern, for the islands.

One early interaction I had was with the Director of the Environmental Legal Clinic at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Law School. Once I explained to him that I was a dual degree student pursuing both a JD and an Urban Planning Master’s degree, he was able to quickly take me through changes he sees underway in Puerto Rico’s land use regulations. The Puerto Rico Planning Board serves as a centralized planning agency for the island. Currently, there are proposed changes that will weaken the role of the Planning Board, and empower individual municipalities in making land use decisions. While there are positives and negatives to both structures for land use planning, the current proposed change presents opportunity to implement innovative policy tailored to local contexts. He also informed us to major supply chain issues for local and organic farmers, and the implementation of plans as presenting potential problems.

Along with my colleague Dave, I also met with two planning professors at UPR, Luis E. Santiago Acevedo, and Maritza Barreto-Orta Ph. D. These professors focused on issues primarily associated with water.  When we explained our ideas around water and solar, they were able to confirm some of our hypothesis. They explained that water quality and delivery is a vexing issue for many on the islands. Further, they described difficulties farmers have in attaining “bonafied status” for their crops. The professors illustrated the differences between upper and lower watersheds, relative to where crops are grown, and the types of agriculture methods used. Prof. Santiago also spoke on the recent reinvestment in sugar production as a potential economic growth area.

These early meeting with expert academics from UPR provided a context sensitive understanding that we built upon with people working in the field implementing solutions. Cecilio Ortiz García, and his student Ibrahim Rodriguez, met us for a breakfast meeting on our day off. They are working to establish a platform, known as INESI, to connect sustainability projects across PR. Their goal is to build a collaborative framework to maximize the potential impact of these projects. Connecting with them allowed our team to speak at the RISE-PR videoconference to share our on the ground work with #UBLawResponds.

Finally, we were lucky to meet Tara Rodríguez Besosa, as well as two of her collaborators Luz Cruz, and Ora Wise. Their team has been, and continues, to do amazing on the ground work bringing healthy, sustainable, and local foods to Puerto Rico. Before the Hurricane, Tara was running El Departmento de Comida, a local food hub that had grown into a farm-to-table restaurant. During the Hurricane’s immediate aftermath, their team was working with Queer Kitchen Brigade to pickle and ferment local donated produce to ship to Puerto Rico. After the hurricane, Tara is returning her organization to its roots by reestablishing the food hub, and working with the Resiliency Fund develop 200 new farms in the next two years. Her emphasis on local and sustainable products and import replacement has a need for supportive legislative, on the state and local level in Puerto Rico. Her model for economic development could be replicated and altered to fit other industries to help regrow Puerto Rico’s economy.

Each expert we met helped to further assemble the complex picture of Puerto Rico’s status. Each new connection strengthened our long term relationship with the islands. Each new piece of information helped to get our perspectives to a better place for serving Puerto Rico. We have taken this information, and have made an effort to form what will be the future of the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic. Hopefully, that clinic will allow new students in #UBLawResponds to grow as they work to serve Puerto Rico and its long term recovery.

Connecting on Common Ground

IMG_20180129_090947_1-01I have connected with so many wonderful people in meaningful ways while I have been in Puerto Rico as a Student Attorney in University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic. Karla Raímundi, our team’s staff attorney for the trip and Puerto Rican native, played an important role in facilitating these interactions and uncovering the common ground Buffalo and Puerto Rico share. These new relationships are not only the foundation for #UBLawResponds in the future, but were also vital to learning about Puerto Rican life.

Karla has always been sensitive to social justice and civil rights issues. So when she completed her Environmental Law LLM at Pace Law School, she knew immediately that she was going to dedicate her professional life to empowering Environmental Justice Communities. During this time, she oversaw four climate justice assessments, an urban forestry initiative, and litigation centered on the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. Lucky for me, she did a lot of this work in my native Hudson Valley. While I was coming of age and learning to love the natural environment, little did I know that I had such a strong advocate working to protect my home. Being from an Environmental Justice community herself, Karla’s obvious passion and moral imperative for climate justice inspired me to do more and go further with my time on the island.

Being in Puerto Rico and focusing on environmental resilience and sustainability, in some ways, feels like returning the favor. Through our humanitarian aid journeys across the island, I have been introduced to Puerto Rico’s stunning natural beauty. In the midst of hiking through the Cayey Mountains in Karla’s grandparents’ hometown, she I shared a moment where we realized our traded places. The teary-eyed smiles we shared validated our appreciation of each other and strengthened our connection.

Connecting through the significance of our work helped highlight the meaning of the other relationships we were building with our time on the island. When actions like giving somebody a towel or just simply listening to somebody willing to tell their story moves them to tears, it is a powerful emotional experience that will forever bind me to this island. The passion exhibited from the activists, students, professors, stakeholders, and officials has not only inspired me to strengthen my connection with Puerto Rico in the future, but has renewed my vigor to defend my own home.

Buffalo and Puerto Rico are more similar than many would believe. They are both plagued by similar issues; large out-migration, loss of manufacturing jobs, financial issues, environmental degradation, and large economic disparities. Buffalo’s “resurgence” lends itself in part to the ingenuity of grassroots organizers and innovative policymakers. Organizations like “People United for Sustainable Housing” in Buffalo, and “Casa Pueblo” in Puerto Rico, carry out similar missions, albeit in different ways, and could potentially share valuable lessons with each other. By building bridges between our two places, we could seize on our collective knowledge working on similar issues to help the other get stronger.

These shared experiences and new relationships will allow #UBLawResponds to grow into a meaningful long term project and to help facilitate that exchange of ideas. Already, the team is coming up with ways to help support those we met back on the island, including the possibility of a fundraiser to replace a hurricane damaged sports pavilion at an elementary school in Arroyo. However, to do so we need more than just innovative ideas. In order to effectively carry out our mission, we ask that you continue to support this project in any way you can. Together, we can strive for better.

From Old Roots to New Seeds: Exploring the historic and future role of agriculture in Puerto Rico

IMG_20180123_091444_2-01Puerto Rico’s relationship with agriculture is a good way to explore the island’s experience with colonialism. Understanding the changes in the agriculture sector alongside other historical events in Puerto Rico helped me to better understand some of the island’s current economic woes. However, there is a growing movement among the younger Puerto Rican generation that sees agriculture as a way to make the island more resilient and self-sufficient.

The Taíno natives were the first stewards of Puerto Rico’s natural landscape, and had an extensive agriculture system focusing on cassava, sweet potato, corn, and other root crops.[1] In order to provide an economic basis for continued colonization after the island’s gold reserves were depleted, Puerto Rico’s agriculture was commodified to put greater focus on sugar cane exports.[2] By the 19th century, Puerto Rico’s agriculture sector was comprised mainly of three crops; sugar cane, coffee, and tobacco. This was the beginning of the island’s reliance on imports for nutrition.

[3]After slavery ended, the United States seized control of Puerto Rico and modernization of the sugar cane and coffee industries was required to remain competitive and serve the U.S. markets. This modernization reduced the amount of producers in these industries[4], and concentrated the sector’s wealth into a few “Barons.”[5] [6] In addition to economic advances elsewhere, the Jones Act limited the amount of sugar that could be exported from Puerto Rico, thus the industry’s competitiveness.

Economic initiatives encouraged industrial development and further blunted agriculture’s importance. Under “Operation Bootstrap,” the combination of Federal and Commonwealth tax incentives fueled the transition to an industrial economy.[7] Subsequently, the agriculture sector shrank to less than 1% of the economy.[8] However, the federal incentives were phased out in 2006, and were a detriment to the Puerto Rican economy.[9]

Here in January 2018, and in the midst of the resulting 12+ year recession, many in Puerto Rico are looking to the agriculture sector as a possible way to help build economic resilience. Before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s food movement was in revival mode. While the island struggled with an ongoing debt crisis and shrinking population, farming was growing after a century of decline, resulting in more than 1,700 farms opening since 2013, and increasing agricultural jobs by 50%.[10] Because the Jones Act increases prices, Puerto Ricans pay a higher amount for food.In short, by growing more food on the island, Puerto Ricans can ensure the stability of their own food supply and fight policies that remove wealth from the island. There are many activists working to make this happen. Tara Rodríguez Besosa’s work has inspired me to examine this movement further, and see how policy could be used to support it. She was one of the speakers at this last year’s “Agrohack” – a conference that focuses on re-growing the agriculture sector in Puerto Rico through innovation. “Agriculture has the potential of becoming a key pillar of any country’s economy through innovation and technology.”[11]

#UBLawResponds will be learning more about many issues during this service learning trip in anticipation of continued work in February and beyond. I think finding a way to encourage the island’s agriculture renaissance may be a good way to build resilience. Check out this video interview of Rodríguez Besosa, where she explains the current movement and how it “defends” Puerto Rico. Her description of the movement echoes the changes in Cuba’s agriculture that have transformed that nation into one of the most sustainable, and could provide a framework for the commonwealth’s agricultural future.[12]








[1] Serafím Méndez-Méndez et al., Puerto Rico Past and Present: An Encyclopedia 10 (2015).
[2] Jorge Duany, Puerto Rico: What Everyone Needs to Know 14 (2017).
[3] Méndez, supra 14.
[4] Duany, supra 51.
[5] Id., 17
[6] Four companies controlled 51% of sugar exports in 192.
[7] Méndez, supra 219.
[8] Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, Puerto Rico Fact Sheet (2017)
[9] Scott Greenberg & Gavin Ekins, Tax Foundation, Tax Policy Helped Create Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Crisis (2015)
[10] Kate Yoder, Hurricane Maria Crushed Puerto Rico Farms, This Activist Wants to Grow Resilience through Food, Grist, Nov. 1 2017.
[11] Agrohack, (last visited Jan. 20, 2018).
[12] As World Burns, Cuba Number 1 for Sustainable Development: WWF, Telesur, October 27, 2016.